Tag Archives: marty

Murphy Henry

So, Marty came for his Marathon Lesson, and as I mentioned, I arranged for some of the other students to come pick with him for an hour or two. Zac, Logan, Chick, and Bobby all showed up, bless their hearts, and we had a fine time. Four banjos and two guitars with Bobby switching to bass on songs he didn’t play a lead on.

Speaking of that.....when we started in on Blue Ridge Cabin Home I asked Bobby if he could play a lead guitar break. (He’d already taken a lead to Cripple Creek and I Saw The Light.) He said no, but he had a smirk on his face, so I figured he was, as we say up here, “storying” to me. I called him on it and said, “Play a lead anyhow.” So he did, having learned down through the years that it’s best to just do what I tell him. (If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.) He, of course, wasn’t satisfied with his playing because it wasn’t perfect but I thought he did a good job.

Shift your thoughts now to Zac. Zac has been working on his singing lately, so he’ll have something besides instrumentals to play at his nursing home gigs. I am flabbergasted that a teenage boy, who has not previous to this been a singer, would be brave enough to learn to sing in front of an audience. I salute you, Zac! Knowing this, I offered Zac a chance to sing a song at the jam. He declined, gracefully, and I said, “Thanks for your honesty.”

Whereupon Bobby pipes up and says, “What about my honesty?”

To which I replied, in the immortal words of Rhett Butler, “Frankly, my dear.......” etc., etc. Which elicited a good laugh from him and everybody else.

And then there was Chick. We were playing Lonesome Road Blues as an instrumental, with everyone taking two pieces for their break (low/high, high/low, low/low, or high/high). We had established a pattern of taking two breaks each with Marty taking a third and last and ending the tune. Since it was his lesson. Well, when it came to Chick’s second turn, he took a high break and tacked on the ending lick. I kept the guitar going and said to him, “You can’t end the tune!” And then said, “You are so going to get blogged about!”

Later Chick said he hadn’t ended the tune on purpose, that his hands had gone into the ending lick of their on volition. I understood that, so all was forgiven. Sometimes your hands just do what they want to do. When you’re improvising, that’s great!

Logan, I must say, was playing exceptionally well. His playing has solidified in the last year and he’s doing all these really cool timing things that he is totally unaware of till I point them out. In the jam, he had added one additional note to Cripple Creek and it sounded fantastic. (Okay, okay. Here’s what he did. There is a pinch of one and five halfway through the A and B parts. Logan changed the pinch to two notes, 5 and 1, which made the first string a “bump” note [grace note] to the upcoming Cripple Creek lick. One tiny change which to my ear made such a big difference!)

And then there was Marty. In spite of what he will tell you, he played well. He can vamp consistently on the off beat now (a real accomplishment!), he can come into his breaks from the vamp, he hears the words to the singing songs in his head and can improvise to many, many songs.

The problem we ran into in the lesson was that Marty—who is a Very Good Boy--adheres too well to my rule “never stop playing, even when you make a mistake.” When I formulated this maxim, I was going on the assumption that the student would be aware of the mistake and could adjust and come back in. But what if you make a mistake and don’t know how to fix it? What if you don’t realize you’ve made a mistake? The end result is the same: you end up playing out of time. And believe me, nobody in a jam is going to adjust to you!

So after wrestling with this dilemma in my mind for some years, I’m thinking now that the best thing to do if you realize you are out of time is to stop playing (heresy!) and see if you can find a place where you can get back in. One easy place to come back in is the “tag lick” at the end of most breaks. And the only way you’re going to know if you are out of time is to LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN to the rhythm section. Make sure you are with them. This may take some time, make take some concentrated effort on your part, but in the end, it will be worth it. You might be able to play out of time occasionally in a jam (after all, your break only lasts 30 seconds or so), but in the long run, people are not going to want to play with you if you can’t stay in time. Timing is everything!

One more word about the jam. Zac and Logan, our teenagers, were so good about playing slow and vamping quietly. Good going, guys! I’m proud of you for that. Of course, I had to let them burn off some of that testosterone with a couple of REALLY FAST songs, Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Earl’s Breakdown. Which they blistered! Bobby switched to bass for these, which helped keep us all together.

Final word: We played, we vamped, we sang, we laughed. A good time was had by all. One of my favorite songs from the Limelighters is called “Move Over And Make Room For Marty.” In which there is the line, “We’ll always move over for Marty...” Absolutely! You are most welcome at any of our jams, Marty! Come back soon!

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Well, Marty and I just finished two days of marathon banjo lessons--four hours on Saturday and another three hours on Sunday. And I am happy and proud to report that on Saturday, during our last hour, Marty tried improvising for the first time and he could do it! Honestly, I was stunned. He just got it. He improvised good breaks to “East Virginia Blues,” “Nobody’s Love Is Like Mine,” “My Dixie Home,” and “Somebody Touched Me.” I was sitting there, open-mouthed, going, “Wow!”

This is a guy who has been playing banjo for a mere 13 months, who had no previous musical background, and who, not long ago, could not reliably vamp on the off beat, as he often mentioned in blog comments.

So, the question is: What did he do right?

The short answer is that he used the Murphy Method DVDs and practiced his butt off. At this point he has learned all the songs on Beginning Banjo Vol. 1 except “John Hardy,” all the Misfits songs, all the Improvising songs except “Roll On Buddy,” plus “Old Joe Clark.”

In addition to this, for the last year he has totally immersed himself in all things banjo. He went to every banjo camp and clinic he could, took a number of marathon lessons with me while regularly taking lessons from Julie Elkins down in N.C., sought out jams in his area and went to them, persuaded friends to play with him even when he was a rank beginner, bought his wife a bass guitar so she could play with him, listened to lots and lots of bluegrass music, kept a notebook of bluegrass lyrics that he himself copied down, and attended lots of live shows.

Plus that, he bought a good beginner banjo early on (after I told him the one he brought to his first lesson was the worst banjo I had ever seen) and after about six months he upgraded to a Stelling MurphyFlower. Hey, a quality instrument helps!

So, folks, I hope Marty’s story will inspire you. You can learn to play, you can learn to improvise. You don’t even have to do it in 13 months. Slow and steady also wins the race. Practice, practice, practice; play with others, play with others, play with others; listen, listen, listen.

BTW, Marty told me that the Flatt and Scruggs’ album “Foggy Mountain Banjo” has been re-released. Put it on your Christmas List NOW. (I just Googled it to make sure. It is available at the “Flatt and Scruggs Store” on Amazon! Wow! While you’re there, might as well get “Foggy Mountain Jamboree” for $6.99. These two CDs are the bible of Scruggs style playing. And if you want a third one, get the Mercury Recordings. Those are truly the Big Three!)

PS: I can’t believe that I saved this blog on my computer under the date “December 7, 1941.” I knew I had Pearl Harbor on my mind when I typed December 7, but finding I’d also typed “1941” was a shock. Let’s take a minute to remember the horror of that day, and the brave men and women who died, and those who lived to continue fighting in that sad, calamitous second World War.

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Before I tell you about the jam (we had nine people total!) here is a note from Marty, emailed under the heading “Martin’s Musings”.

Halloween in my neighborhood is always a zoo. Because I was afraid my cat would get out with the frequent door opening required for the hundreds and hundreds of kids that come by, I decided not to waste the time and just sat on the porch with a bowl full of candy (that I had to repeatedly refill) and played the banjo. I got 2 1/2 hours of practice and everyone who came seemed to like it and I had to play with others listening. That turned out pretty good. I figured if the kids could pretend to be ghosts, goblins and witches, I could pretend to be a banjo player.

He does have a way with words! (And can now vamp reliably on the off beat!)

But on to the jam. Present tonight were Logan, Mark, Ellen, Bob Mc, Josh, Susan, Bob Van, and the Fabulous Ruth Steelman. I saw Josh bring his fiddle in, so as I was rushing around trying to find chairs for everyone, I stuck my head back in the studio and said, “Everybody put their capos on so we can play in A,” thinking that would be easiest for Josh. Well, as it turned out, Josh had spent all week learning to play our tunes in G! But after all those banjos (five!) had capoed and tuned, it was just too much trouble to uncapo and retune, so we stayed in A.

Our song list (all in A):

Cripple Creek

Blue Ridge Cabin Home (“Can you sing that in A?” I said to Bobby. “We’re gonna find out,” he replied.)

John Hardy
I’ll Fly Away
Boil Them Cabbage
Old Joe Clark
Old Joe Clark (really fast by Logan and Ruth)
Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms
Foggy Mountain Breakdown
Wagon Wheel

I told the group we’d do “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in A just so I could see Bobby try to find the F# minor! (And durn if he didn’t hit it perfectly the first time!)

A good time was had by all and at times we laughed ourselves silly, but I’ve been teaching non-stop since 2 pm, it’s now 9 pm as I write this, and I haven’t had my supper. Or lunch. (Unless you count Starbucks and a cookie!) To paraphrase Woody Guthrie, “I want my supper and I want it now!” I’m thinking Triscuit and cheese...unless I scramble some eggs and make toast with homemade apple butter. Hmmm....decisions, decisions!

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Many thanks to Marty (giver of the awesome iPod) for supplying today’s blog. He has most kindly said I could use any of his emails for blogs at any time. Casey and I are on a short mother-daughter vacation which begins with a Chuck Berry in concert in St. Louis! Slight bluegrass connection: Chuck Berry has said that he got the idea for his song “Maybelline” from the old fiddle tune “Ida Red,” which Bob Wills recorded. (Okay, so Bob Wills is western swing, but close enough!)

Small note about Marty: he has now been playing the banjo for just about a year. I met him last year at the IBMA FanFest where he bought some DVDs. We had our first live lesson around the first of November and he’s been off and running ever since.

Dear Murphy,

I am probably wasting your time but I just had to share. I had a big music weekend. Saturday at 3 PM I went to see the Grass Cats. They played “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and I thought, "I can do that." That night I went to see the Greencards and they did a very credible version of “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” and I thought, "I can do that."

Tonight I went to see Missy Raines and she was great (but mostly not too bluegrassy). Her Dobro player is awesome (Mike Witcher). The group that preceded her was Tommy Edwards (also a very fine musician) and his banjo player was Stan Brown who was great and apparently he played in the 1980s with Bill Monroe. They played a song which I can't remember the name but it was really “Your Love is Like a Flower” and I thought, "I can do that."

And I played “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” with my wife Cheryl playing the hammered dulcimer and it was real music and she said I vamped reliably on the off beat. Also tonight I played with one of my nurse’s daughters. She is a fine classical bass player but playing G, C, and D was no problem and she's got rhythm so, boy, with just a banjo and the bass the room just filled up with real music. It was great fun and we played a lot of the songs I know. I need to learn all that backup stuff Stan Brown was doing but I guess I should be sure about vamping on the off beat first. 🙂


Murphy Henry
A quick recap so you’ll understand the story: Recently, Marty, one of my banjo students, gave me an iPod loaded with over 900 songs. (As he put it, “Some of the songs are there because I really like them and some because I thought you would and some are just there.”) I am listening to them in alphabetical order, to make sure I don’t miss any, and Marty is getting a kick out of what he calls my “obsessive compulsive” behavior. 


Below are several of our recent email exchanges which eventually have something to do with banjo playing. The Cheryl mentioned is Marty’s wife who in another guise as Lynnette Kent writes romance novels! I’ve read three so far and have really enjoyed them. (Especially When Sparks Fly, the one about the firefighter!) 

Dear Marty, 

I made it thru a lot of the D's on the iPod. But somehow the damn thing got on “scramble,” so I had to listen to some songs OUT OF ORDER!!!! But I did hear "Jerusalem’s Choir" and just loved it! 

The one I LOATHED was "Do You Love As Good As You Look" by the Bellemy Brothers. I thought it was completely tasteless and demeaning to women and was surprised to find it on your iPod. Undoubtedly an oversight on your part. (I'm assuming that I can speak frankly? I did try to tone it down. Next time I'll tell you how I really feel.<G>) 

Dear Murphy,

Okay, I made up for “Do You Love As Good As You Look” with “Did I Shave My Legs For This.” How come you didn't comment on "Trashy Women" by Confederate Railroad? <G> In my defense, Cheryl really likes that song. (I think it is sung tongue in cheek.) Kane's River was a heck of a group to my ear so I am glad you liked “Jerusalem's Choir.” Julie Elkins [his other banjo teacher] has a great voice and unlike me, she's got timing down.

Dear Marty, 

Yeah, I did like “Did I Shave My Legs for This.” Thanks for that. And of course I haven't gotten to "Trashy Women" because it's in the T's! I'm intrigued that Cheryl likes "Do You Love...." I agree that it's (probably) tongue in cheek but still was too over the line for little ole moi....  

Dear Murphy, 

Actually I meant that she likes “Trashy Women,” not “Do You Love ...” and when I mentioned your objections her response was obviously, "Well, Martin, don't you see the difference?" To which I replied, “Cheryl, I just want to vamp properly on the offbeat.” 

And that, dear readers, is simply classic!

Murphy HenryMarty came this weekend for another marathon lesson. We played for many hours Saturday, and many more hours Sunday. In between songs we discussed the problems of the world. Didn’t solve a single one.

One of the topics we meandered onto was the conundrum that banjo (and bluegrass) is not as easy as it looks! Bluegrass appears simple, but, as all you students know, it ain’t! On the other hand, if you know G, C, and D chords you can actually participate in making music. So, it’s not like classical music or jazz or even playing hymns on the piano where you have to have years of training to be able to play music in any of those styles.

So bluegrass is simple, yet it’s not simple. What a paradox! Marty and I decided that best way to describe this apparent contradiction is thusly: bluegrass (particularly banjo!) is not simple, but it is accessible. Not simple, but accessible. Which means if you want to play it, you can. It’s not so hard that the average person—with a ton of “want to” and a lot of practice—can’t play it at some level.

The two operative points are the “want to” and the practice. As I told Marty, persistence trumps talent. If you’ve got all the talent in the world, but you don’t practice, then you you’re not likely to accomplish anything musically. On the other hand, if you have a lot of “want to” and a modicum of talent (which I think we all have), then with persistence and lots of practice, you will learn how to play. (And if you have a lot of talent and a lot of practice then you become Kristin Scott Benson or Alison Brown or Bela Fleck!)

Marty has given himself the goal of learning to play reasonably well in five years. I think that’s doable. He heard somewhere that he needs 2000 hours of practice and he has been most diligent in “putting the thumb to the five” as Alison Brown once said.

In less than a year’s time he has learned:

Banjo in the Hollow
Cripple Creek
Cumberland Gap
Boil Them Cabbage (low and high)
I Saw the Light
Do Lord
Worried Man/Gal
Two Dollar Bill

And, to be fair, he can play most of the notes to “Old Joe Clark” but I can’t brag on him about that because, against my advice (!), he learned it out of sequence, so I did not have Total Control which makes me crazy! (As he knows! Grin.)

Marty can vamp to all of these (except OJC), although hearing the off beat is still hard. (We worked on that a lot!) On Saturday some of the Misfits came over (Susan, Bill, Mark, Ellen) and we jammed on all of these. Marty held his own admirably!

I sent him home to North Carolina with the assignment to learn “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” (the low break) and to polish up OJC. I figure that will hold him till July, when he’s off to camp at Augusta Heritage in Elkins, WV, and will come under the tutelage of Casey.

I can’t tell you how proud I am of you Marty! (Although I guess I just did!) Way to hang in there. Looking forward to hearing what you sound like with your new Stelling!